It was impossible to spend a sadder three hours in a cinema in the 2004/5 season than with Martin Scorsese's dreadful The Aviator. The film brings home with a wallop the disillusioning fact that this once-great director has not made an entirely coherent, satisfying film since Kundun (1997).
What has happened to Scorsese? The energy and insight once put into masterpieces like Casino (1996) have been frittered away in a string of blandly pedagogical documentaries (on American and Italian cinema, and blues music) and the terribly compromised Gangs of New York (2002).
For the first time ever, it feels like Scorsese is playing it perfectly safe with The Aviator – and, just as further proof that the world is rotten, this is the film that has finally won him a decent fistful of mainstream awards and acclaim (short, however, of a coveted Best Director or Best Film Oscar – thankfully, these went to Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby ). The film is a monument to Scorsese's massive alienation.
Howard Hughes is a fascinating topic, and any number of intriguing films could be made about his life, times and career. (Brian De Palma is among the many directors who have tried to work up such a project.) At its outset, The Aviator makes a strange decision about how to slice up this life. It begins in the midst of Hughes' work on his super-production Hell's Angels (completed 1930), and then uses that to segue to the entrepreneur's increasingly driven efforts to build planes for the war effort – as well as to run his own airline. In between these big events, he also dates a few Hollywood stars, Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale); since, however, romantic/erotic chemistry has never been a notable facet of Scorsese's largely sexless cinema, these scenes are among the film's least interesting.
Thus a mythic image forms: Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) as an Artist, a Visionary, a Prometheus (or Icarus), a suave lover, a self-made guy, a lone man against a malevolent System. Just put out of your mind the facts that, as a filmmaker, Hughes was a very bad amateur; that, as an entrepreneur, he was what one political analyst called the "model American Fascist type"; as a self-made political lobbyist, he ferociously hounded leftists out of Hollywood and tried to buy off Presidents; that he inherited his fortune from his father's drill-bit business; and that his hubris had nothing particularly grand about it at all. As a piece of historical fiction, The Aviator is a disgrace.
Three especially offensive scenes sum up the film's wilful blindness – dishonesty is not too strong a word – in the face of Hughes' historical record. First: the pathetic piece of social satire in which Hughes demolishes Hepburn's chatty Chardonnay-Socialist family with the killer line, "You never had to earn your money" – which implies that Hughes did.
Second: the evasive treatment (much remarked upon) of Hughes' destructive flight; Scorsese is so uneasy with the implications of this scene (and so fast and loose with the facts concerning the extent of damage to property, and the serious injury of a fellow pilot) that he yucks it up as a thrilling, cartoonish, exhilaratingly childlike spectacle, and even includes a standard-issue gag shot of a large, screaming woman scurrying away as the plane rips apart her home, to deflate or deflect the event's seriousness.
Third: the committee hearings in which Hughes comes up against Alan Alda as Senator Owen Brewster (an extension of several other, less dramatic scenes with Alec Baldwin as Juan Trippe), and is portrayed as the Victim of a malevolent, bureaucratic system which exists (it seems) to stifle his creativity – in the very same setting where, in reality, only weeks later, Hughes would do his level best to stifle the film careers of Communist sympathisers. The extent of the making-heroic con-job here – the depiction of Hughes as a sick guy struggling to get himself together for the big showdown with the Law, the melodramatic low and high angles to differentiate Good from Bad Guy – beggars belief.
But, you will protest, the film also shows Hughes to be a stark raving madman! And he is almost consumed in the flames of his own 'heroic' flight! Those who defend the film point to these scenes of Hughes' dementia, his possessiveness and need to control others, his fetishistic attachment to perfect machines and perfect female bodies. Hughes was the model capitalist, yes, and thus capitalism is shown to be power-driven, psychotic, paranoiac! Never has a Scorsese film seemed such a sop to supposedly progressive, theory-led appreciations. (Reams of quotation from Deleuze & Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia cannot be far away.)
But Scorsese, on all these points, does a passable imitation of Oliver Stone. Yes, Howard does sometimes seem a little petty, a little blinkered, a little stupid (especially when Ava is clocking him over the head), a little naïve (the ambiguous scene of his 'discovery' that he must film planes in front of clouds is either a homage to his ingenuity or a lightning-comparison of him with Ed Wood.) Scorsese certainly hints at a critique of Hughes, but offers a banal and spurious explanation for his hero's mental illness – the massive Oedipal complex brought on an overbearing mother!
At no point is the hero's 'problem' posed as a metaphor for society or capitalism. In fact, its star has summed up the film's viewpoint with perfect clarity: Hughes, DiCaprio says, is a guy who "had it all and did it all", but paid the price with his sanity. He owned the world and lost his mind ... what a sad end for a Great Man. That is the only "way of the future" anticipated in the final scene: batty old, unshaven Hughes cooped up in a hotel room for twenty years, not the steep Decline of Western Civilisation.
Incredibly, Scorsese seems unaware that he is glorifying Hughes at a moment in pop culture when 'rebel billionaires' like Trump and Branson are becoming bigger and more sinister media stars than ever. Does this have something to do with the masochism that must result of having to bow to Money-Man Weinstein, and Superstar DiCaprio (on whom, it seems, the director's career now entirely depends – it's a hostage situation.)
Perhaps the deeper explanatory factor is that Scorsese is now falling prey, once and for all, to that lurking solipsism that has fed even his best films: all he really cares about is history as lived 'from the inside', the way a mighty individual (even, or perhaps especially, a 'dysfunctional' mighty individual) sees and feels it. (Casino is really the only Scorsese film that succeeds in definitively getting outside that subjectivity and into any over-arching System – in that case, a money system.) Supporters of the movie, like Geoffrey O'Brien in Film Comment, have to perform a similar crab-like manoeuvre: they feel their way along the minute nerve-fibres of Hughes' pain, and ignore all context.
In the case of The Aviator, this wilful myopia allows Scorsese and his writer John Logan (Gladiator, 2000) to conveniently erase all the money, power and corruption (including links to the Mafia) that sustained Hughes' tawdry Visions. That Michael Mann presides as Executive Producer over this fiasco makes it all the worse (he was perhaps wise to not direct it). If Gangs of New York proved anything, it is that Scorsese is incapable of a political analysis, and is possibly even bereft of a social conscience – one is reminded of his brotherly, on the Oscar stage, public support (alongside De Niro) for another Red-Baiter of supposedly tragic stature, Elia Kazan. (Abraham Polonsky's public response to that Honorary Award was preferable: the old guy threatened to show up with a gun.) On this level as on many others, The Aviator is a profoundly thoughtless film.
Scorsese has sometimes been criticised, even in his best years, for drawing upon other movies rather than real life. Now he is only vampirising himself, and it is a sorry sight. This film ends with a breakdown scene that combines similar moments in Raging Bull (1980) and The King of Comedy (1982) with the finale of Todd Haynes' Safe (1995) – right down to the mirror, the mantras, and the chilling touch of reverb on the last line – all three films infinitely superior to The Aviator.
All there is left is mere technical virtuosity. You will read much about Scorsese's efforts (no doubt as perfectionist as Hughes' own ventures – the amount of simmering identification here between Scorsese and his Hero is scary) to mimic the colour processes of Hollywood films of the period – but if this was a George Roy Hill or Franklin Schaffner movie (from which it is not far removed), such special-effects would be regarded as mere decoration.
Some of the period recreations – glimpses of contemporary performers crooning a classic bar or two – have more in common with the execrable De-Lovely (2004) than anything in Scorsese's gangster/crime classics. And the acting, for the most part, displays the same kind of cold, mechanical excellence: DiCaprio furrows his brow a lot, while Blanchett does a convincing job mimicking Hepburn not as she was in life, but on screen.
Beyond that, we are left only to echo the vacuous sentiments of David Thomson (in a Guardian feature reprinted in other newspapers around the globe), who sums up the movie's viewpoint with perfect complacency: "Hughes was a great and brave flyer, a man who could talk to interesting women and someone whose pictures were never dull". Maybe Scorsese should henceforth hire himself out for glorifying biopics of monstrously larger-than-real-life characters: Harvey Weinstein, Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson ...
MORE biopics: Ali, Auto Focus, Basquiat, Heart Like a Wheel, I Shot Andy Warhol, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Man on the Moon, Malcolm X, Nixon, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Pollock, What's Love Got to Do With It?
© Adrian Martin February 2005